The Priviledge of Driving

The Priviledge of Driving
In my opinion, the privilege of driving allows us to consume excessively. Not only do we cover an obscene amount of green space with pavement and spew an alarming amount of toxic emissions guzzling gas but we also consume an amazing level of consumer goods because of how much we can fit and transport in a motor vehicle. A number of years ago, while discussing my desire to see more bicycle paths with a friend, he mentioned that he would prefer to see everyone return to just walking. Even the humble bicycle affords us more privilege than simply walking.

This statement really stuck with me. Whenever I make a purchase now, I consider how much privilege I am experiencing by taking that item home. Is it something that I could easily carry? How far must I travel with it? What mode of transport am I using? Would I buy this item if I couldn’t carry it or even cycle with it. Am I over-consuming? Is this purchase making a positive or negative impact on other people or the environment? Could I purchase something more sustainable? How will my purchase affect long term sustainability? The seemingly simple privilege of driving is interconnected to so many consumer choices and ultimately allows us to blindly consume more.

We buy bigger houses with bigger yards and fill them with more furniture and decor than we need. We fill our cars with large amounts of groceries of which over 50% will be wasted. In Canada, The average Canadian household spends $1700 on food that just gets thrown out. We travel to more places farther distances carrying with us large quantities of stuff including more gas consuming sporting goods such as ATV’s and boats that further pollute our forests and waterways. We pay big bucks to store our vehicles in heated spaces, meanwhile, whole segments of our society are struggling to find shelter and we demand free parking in front of our homes without a thought about how much of our tax dollars go towards maintaining those spots. We enjoy a huge amount of privilege and we owe a lot of it to the private automobile. Our city has been built to give driving priority.

In this month’s blog I want to write about transportation but not about the need for more options or more sustainable modes. I want to write about how the transportation we use also drives consumption. Reducing consumption is the one thing that humanity must do to mitigate climate change effectively. It doesn’t really matter if we convert everything to renewables and start driving electric cars exclusively if we don’t also reduce our consumption. I'm certain that some of you will disagree with my opinion, but that's OK. At the very least, I hope my ideas will give you something to think about and will encourage you to investigate further and decide for yourself how you can best reduce your consumption and live a more sustainable life.

Let’s take a closer look at the privilege of driving and how it affects our consumption patterns. In Calgary, the private automobile is our preferred mode and as a result we enjoy low density with over 800 square kilometres of urban space. But all this space dedicated to cars comes at a cost financially, socially and environmentally. A large portion of our tax dollars go towards maintaining roads. In 2018, investment in highways and road structures and networks accounted for over one-fifth (22.5%) of total infrastructure investment in Canada. And that doesn’t include emergency services, healthcare, insurance and pollution costs which are also associated with maintaining such a car dependent system. Most new buildings and neighbourhoods have been built at a bigger scale to accommodate our private motorized system. They consume more water and power too. Streets are wider and designed with no grid system making it feel like you’re in the country. Sadly, it’s not very convenient for walking or biking. There is no place to put main streets in this type of layout so developers built adjacent shopping centres and strip malls to accommodate each neighbourhood. These shopping areas aren’t very pretty yet are conveniently designed for drivers only. Many suburban neighbourhoods have no sidewalks at all. Even if you wanted to walk, it might not be possible to do so safely. This encourages more driving and more shopping to limit the number of times you have to visit these busy, congested centres. We often buy more food than we can eat and much of it is spoiled before we get a chance to consume it. With the death of neighbourhood corner stores came an increase in food waste. It may seem more economical to stuff our vehicles with weeks worth of food but the unfortunate fact is that it has really increased consumption and waste.

We consume more processed food because it is so easy to drive right up to a window and order. We get less exercise and if we do make an effort to exercise many of us drive to a gym consuming even more fuel. We buy more health products to make up for unhealthy lifestyles and we consume more pre-packaged meals to save time now that we spend much more of it commuting. We justify buying larger houses far from work because the road system has allowed us to do that. The auto industry and housing developers haven’t given us many other options anyway. Many jobs in Calgary actually require a reliable car. We become debt slaves. Our children get thrown in the mix too. Parents mostly complain about unsafe roads as the main reason for driving them everywhere but then they too become part of the problem. Meanwhile, our kids are becoming unhealthy too due to lack of exercise and air pollution.

Calgary does offer a public transit system which may or may not be a convenient option depending upon where you live. Many of the newer neighbourhoods are such a long distance that the service doesn’t run often enough or locate stops at enough easily accessible locations. The C-trains offer fast direct service but, again, this is only convenient if you live close to a station. That said, there are many that get there by car, park at the station and ride direct downtown to save on parking costs. The system is pricey too.

My husband and I determined that it would cost more to buy monthly transit passes for each of us than to maintain insurance and fuel our car. I finished paying off my car loan years ago. If you have a car payment, it will likely be cheaper to take transit.

Regardless, I believe that public transit should be affordable enough to make it cheaper than driving in any scenario. There is no incentive to use the service if it costs too much. On top of the cost, transit infrastructure is mostly built in addition to and not in lieu of roads which means drivers still have access to the best routes even though it costs all of us extra in tax dollars to pay for all that additional transit infrastructure. A really good example of this is the BRT running from Inglewood to International Avenue. In my opinion, if we’re really serious about reducing emissions and getting people out of their cars we would put roads on a diet and build the BRT on existing infrastructure. Instead, we built a whole new bridge and widened 17 Avenue even more. This cost us close to $300 million. Vehicle traffic hasn’t been impeded at all by this new infrastructure. If anything, it’s more convenient than ever to drive this route. I have walked, rode my bike, travelled by bus and driven this route and I can tell you that drivers still get the priority.

I am not opposed to public transit at all, in fact, I believe that we should be making a much bigger effort to build more but if we are going to make an impact and reduce consumption we must give other modes like BRTs priority over vehicle traffic. It must be more affordable and convenient. It only makes sense to build it on existing roads both for the cost savings but also because it’s convenient - roads run where people want to go.

I am a critic of the SE route planned for the Green Line. Much of the route runs through empty land and when it does get close to communities, the proposed stations are not located within a convenient walking distance. Sure, communities might pop-up along this route in the future, but it won’t provide convenient service for those living there now. The north leg down Centre Street makes sense to me. So many people are ready and waiting to use this service. If we built it down Centre Street first, we’d have a guaranteed ridership to help cover the costs as well.

When we give priority to people in our neighbourhoods we automatically make our communities more walkable and safe for bike riders eliminating the need to drive as often. A walk to the bakery or produce market will be enjoyable. Since we’re walking, biking or taking transit, we’ll be picking up just enough groceries for the day. Without a car we won’t be buying more than we can carry which means we’ll be consuming less and wasting less. We’ll also be purchasing more from local shops. Local shops are more sustainable because they have a smaller footprint and they make more effort to stock local made items and employ people from your neighbourhood. We’ll be buying less but better quality and often local made. We’ll all be meeting more neighbours building stronger community ties. Young parents and our elders alike will be less isolated and experience more social interaction with regular walking or biking trips on their neighbourhood streets. If we’re driving less, we won’t need as much space to store cars. In fact, some of us might decide to not have a car at all, reducing the size of our homes we are currently demanding and allowing more density. This means we’ll have more tax dollars available to spend on parks, education, housing, healthcare or the arts.

In my own life, I have decided that a bicycle is my preferred mode of transportation despite the fact that walking is still more sustainable. It’s often faster than a bus and it’s far cheaper than my car. Plus, biking is emissions free. I only use my car when it’s absolutely necessary, for example I need to give someone with mobility challenges a ride, the distance is simply too far or I make a purchase too large to transport without a car. I have made it a habit to use my bicycle for all other travel. I grab groceries by bike, take my daughter to school by bike, visit friends by bike and go to meetings by bike. I have also made it a rule that I will not attend an event unless I can get there by walking or biking. I refuse to drive.

I don’t need a gym membership because I get on average 7 hours of exercise a week just riding my bike. I also enjoy it. It’s good for my mental health. I get to see beautiful parks, animals and watch the seasons change. I see people I know along my route and this helps me feel connected to my community. It’s also convenient to stop along the way and check out new shops, treat myself to an ice cream or try beer at a local taproom.

It’s true that I make more purchases overall but my consumption stays within a sustainable footprint of one planet. The average in Calgary is 4.8. That means that we would need 4.8 planets worth of resources to give everyone on earth the same standard of living as the average Calgarian. I purchase more local items and am less of a burden on our transportation system and our healthcare system. I pollute and waste a lot less too. Because I choose not to drive, I have limited my consumption on purpose. Sometimes it’s hard. I don’t enjoy riding in the wind or rain. But I wouldn’t enjoy driving in a car either. The bicycle is my happy compromise. I'm not driving but I'm not constrained by the limits of walking either.

It really makes no difference if you drive an electric car or put solar panels on your roof if you don’t also reduce your consumption. I have great hope that renewable technology will be an excellent tool to help us become sustainable but, we cannot allow the technology to fool us into thinking that we can keep up our current rate of consumption. I believe that by making an effort to drive less, we will consume less. I don’t expect Calgary to change overnight and I know that changing transportation priorities right now will be impossible for many of us. But, I do believe it is helpful to be fully aware of the consumer choices we make because driving is given the priority. Next time you choose to drive, please consider how necessary it is. Be sure to ask your community leaders and planners to invest in infrastructure to make a more sustainable alternative an easy choice for all of us. Let’s make people and our environment the priority and reduce consumption.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.